Manasquan has been the definition of a program over the years, able to withstand heavy graduation losses and remain in the state playoff hunt season after season.

That tradition will once again be put to the test this fall, as the Warriors only return two starters on offense and four on defense from a team that lost to eventual champion Delsea in the South Jersey Group III semifinals. They graduated the majority of their line on both sides of the ball, a 1,300-yard passer, their leading receiver, a 1,000-yard rusher, and their leading tackler, but the high expectations remain the same at a program that has won a Shore Conference-record 11 NJSIAA titles in its history.

“It’s on us, the seniors,’’ senior tight end/linebacker Tanner Cowley said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys who have a ton of talent, but they need leadership. We’re going to take us as far as we want to go. If we get those sophomores and juniors together, it’s going to look good this year. You’re never going to be able to replace a Joe Murphy or a Monte Sinisi, but we got guys out here making their own names.”

Virginia recruit Tanner Cowley, a senior tight end/linebacker, is one of only a handful of returning starters who look to get the newcomers up to speed quickly for the Warriors. (Photo by Bill Normile)

“Being young, you kind of crawl through preseason,’’ head coach Jay Price said. “Every little thing you took for granted with an older crew, you’ve got to go back and teach. You’re going back to square one and trying to get them up to speed, but so far they’ve responded well. The sophomores are talented, but they’re just raw.”

The defense returns more experience and looks to be a backbone of the team in the early going while the offense breaks in a host of new skill players and linemen. Cowley, a three-year starter who is verbally committed to the University of Virginia, is the anchor as the strongside linebacker in their 4-3 scheme after making 75 tackles as a junior.

“Cowley is playing at a level I can’t coach,’’ Price said. “He’s a lot quicker than he’s been in the past, and smarter. We might as well put him down as a linebacker coach or a defensive coordinator. He’s calling out coverages, he’s changing coverages – he’s really become a pretty special kid.”

The linebackers look to be a strength of the defense, as senior John Morris, who had 53 solo tackles and 44 assists last year, is also a returning starter at middle linebacker. The weakside linebacker spot is being contested between seniors Matt Paturzo and Paul Krueger. Senior Craig Miller is the lone returning starter on the defensive line after making 33 tackles last year, and he will be part of the defensive end rotation that includes senior Jeff Hall, and juniors Dan Mopsick and Dylan Pacetti. The defensive tackles are all new and will feature a rotation of 260-pound junior Matt McGrady, junior Rob Hart and senior Rob Hagaman.

“With all the losses, we need a lot of people to step up, but I’ve seen a lot of sophomores and juniors working hard and trying to earn spots,’’ Morris said.

The secondary returns senior James McAlary at cornerback, where senior newcomer Max Hawkins should see time along with senior Ben Meseroll and junior Grey McMahon. The safeties look to be a rotation of senior Luke O’Shaughnessy, a basketball player who transferred from Christian Brothers Academy last year, along with senior John Driscoll and promising sophomore Tom Meyer.

“We’ve got to get the line up to speed and fill in one or two spots in the secondary, but in practice they have looked pretty good, and we’ll see more when the scrimmages get going,’’ Price said.

Offensively, there will be plenty of new faces in the Warriors’ multiple-I attack. Sophomore Jerry Maher and senior Liam Grieb are battling at quarterback to replace graduated starter Tucker Caccavale. While 1,000-yard rusher Joe Murphy has graduated at tailback, McAlary returns after rushing for 481 yards and 5 touchdowns on 55 carries last year in his first season of football after coming over from the soccer team.

“We did lose a good amount on offense and have a lot of shoes to fill, but we look strong at quarterback, and we have a backfield where we’ll be able to rotate two or three guys with around 10 carries per game,’’ McAlary said.

Krueger also will see carries at tailback and is a complement to the speedy McAlary as a physical, between-the-tackles runner. Morris and O’Shaughnessy will see time at fullback in certain sets. At wideout, the Warriors have to replace a combined 47 catches by Joe Fittin and Kieran Preston, but will break in a group with good potential. Hawkins, a baseball standout, has come out for football as a senior and has great speed, while Paturzo returns with experience at wideout. Driscoll and 6-foot-3 junior Kyle LeBlanc also will be in the mix at receiver, and the 6-foot-5 Cowley returns at tight end to give them a big target over the middle and in the red zone.

Hart is the lone returning starter on the offensive line, and he will be one of the guards along with Hall. McGrady will be at center, and Miller and Hagaman are the tackles. Mopsick and Pacetti also should see time in the offensive line rotation.

“(Offensive line coach Don Klein) focuses on how the offensive line leads the team, and if we’re not working, nobody is working, so we have to work our butts off in order for the whole team to get going,’’ Miller said. “I would say our line is one of our stronger points right now.”

Matt Paturzo returns with experience at wideout and also should see time at linebacker. (Photo by Bill Normile)

Senior Logan Sabins, a member of the school’s golf team, has come out for football and looks to be the starting placekicker. The punting duties are being contested between senior Cody Carrithers and junior Adam Schrek.

The goal is the same as it’s always been at Manasquan – play 12 games. Last year’s senior class was the first once since 1985 to go all four years without the Warriors reaching a state final, so this year’s group wants to break that trend in a South Jersey Group III bracket that still includes a formidable Delsea team among others.

“There’s pressure every year at Manasquan to get to the state final, if not win one, so that’s our goal going in, and we’re going to work hard to attain that goal,’’ Morris said.

“They know that,’’ Price said. “It’s something that weighs pretty heavy on them, but we don’t ever talk about that kind of stuff until we get to the playoffs.”

Right now the Warriors are just focused on the intangibles as they try to reload the lineup.

“Effort is what’s going to have to keep us going because they’re going to make mistakes, and they’re going to be learning on the fly,’’ Price said. “It’s going to be their effort and drive that’s going to get them through it and get them over the top, so that’s what we’re stressing.”

 

Head coach: Jay Price, 4th season

Career record: 22-10

Assistant coaches: Lou Certo (off. coord./WR); Don Klein (OL/DL); Dave Hallion (DB); Alex Vasilenko (DL); Billy Bertscha (OL); Andy Manser (RB); Jay Price Sr. (DB); Brian Lee (QB); Eric Howland (LB); Rich Griffith, Andy Cefalo, Matt Voskian (freshman); Kevin Hyland (athletic trainer).

2013 record: 8-3 (4-2)

Big Shoes to Fill: James McAlary, Sr., RB

You can take your pick in this department considering the Warriors graduated their statistical leaders in just about every category and top linemen like Monte Sinisi and Matt Forst, so numerous players have some big shoes to fill. McAlary will have to help replace tailback Joe Murphy, who had 1,038 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns last year.

X-Factor: Experience.

How quickly all the newcomers get up to speed in a competitive Class A Central will determine whether this team can make a deep playoff run this fall.

Glue Guy: Tanner Cowley, Sr., TE/LB

The Virginia recruit is a three-year starter and a force on both sides of the ball. His high football IQ also will be needed to help the new starters get acclimated quickly.

Impact Newcomer: Max Hawkins, Sr., WR/DB

Price said Hawkins is the fastest player Manasquan has had in years. Hawkins decided to come out for the team after focusing on baseball for his first three years. He adds a wide receiver who can stretch the field and bolsters the secondary.

Pivotal Game: Oct. 18 vs. Rumson-Fair Haven

With Rumson looking like the preseason favorite to win the division, this one should be huge, and it’s at Vic Kubu Warrior Field in Manasquan. Last year the Warriors took the Bulldogs to the wire in a 22-15 loss in the final minute of regulation. This game also will most likely have major power-point implications. Rumson earned the No. 1 seed in Central Jersey Group II last year because of its victory and went on to win the bracket.